On 8th October we are still in Vientiane but our world tour of garages continues. The car is languishing in yet another garage and nothing has worked so far. It will be a red letter day if it is ever cured! We dont even have a credible diagnosis yet.
We are sweaty hot here. Yet our boiler back home in Greenwich broke down yesterday and the tenants are up in arms expecting a same day repair because it is chilly and it controls the hot water too. This is not always possible and all the engineers were turning off their phones as they had too much work. Sorted eventually, I think. I had to go to sleep before the last news flash.
Far away, we are beginning to quite enjoy living in Vientiane. It is not a place to buy clothes but you can eat out quite cheaply.
A little routine is developing. Wander off to the garage to see if parts have turned up, hear some stories from the eccentric owner, drift off to the Institute Francais for a light lunch in their outdoor cafe with large fans under a rush matting roof.
We were ‘fortunate’ enough to be introduced to an ageing Canadian gearbox specialist, familiar with old landcruisers. Surrounded by partly repaired cars, and lots of very good equipment and a young Lao helper, we hoped for the best.
He had somehow become left behind in Lao with his 7th wife, part Lao, who had given him a couple of remarkably sane children. Part of what you pay for with Mike, is for him to dig deep into his treasure trove of yarns and many tales of years of frustration with corrupt bureaucracy. Utterly mind blowing.
We ordered parts that did not fit, parts that did fit and did not improve matters and finally he suggested replacing the clutch again, which we had only installed in Luang Prabang a few weeks earlier. He wondered if an error had been made in the part number. This second clutch took over a week to arrive. We paid some $650 for this part once we had paid for ‘tax’ which was more than the cost of the part. Bear in mind we had only done this a couple of weeks earlier too.
Worryingly it looked identical to the part discarded and needless to say, with more than 1000$ spent on the gearbox in Lao alone it still did not work. (We have kept the new discarded clutch as a spare).
Mike was now wondering if our brand new gearbox had some faulty synchronisation rings which were jamming. This would be just too much. We had paid over 4,000$ for that gearbox from a main dealer in Bishkek. We are not ready to even consider that it may be faulty!
At this point we left and decided to limp on as we did not want to wait weeks for more gearbox parts in Laos, for some expensive solution which probably would not work.
A few days ago, we met a German guy (an Overlander) who has settled here and runs an alternative technology business.
Andy has a constant stream of Overlanders dropping in and sometimes they camp in his leafy yard for free. He dispenses advice on border crossings but with a very low success rate. Laos is fast becoming a cul-de-sac of stranded Overlanders who fail to ever leave! We keep bumping into people in cafes, still hanging out.
We have now met most of them and we have a collective Facebook messaging group where people post their successes and failures. More failures than successes when it comes to entering Thailand with our cars.
Today’s garage is Andy’s. He has offered to work out why our solar powered fridge has stopped working. We hope to have better luck with that than the radio.
Our new Sony radio purchased from Halfords is also not working. We spent months looking at the connecting wiring thinking it may have a loose connection in the rear as it kept cutting out over bumps. Not just the CD player! We have now concluded that the loose screw is buried deep inside our new radio which we can’t return to Halfords! So something else for the shopping list.
With Australia becoming ever closer and the weather hotting up, we thought we should get the defunct air conditioning fixed. Lots of dust in the deserts of China did it no good and they would not fix it in China, declaring our a/c gases non-ecological. Maybe fewer scruples in Laos? So tomorrows’ garage is Peter an old Australian married to a Lao woman. His garage is really close to the Mekong river with amazing biews across to Thailand. He will hopefully find a mate to sort out the a/c and recharge and overhaul it.
What do you do when you can’t travel and the car is in a garage? One good thing is that I found somewhere to fix my specs. Finally I walked past a glasses store that was bigger than most in Vientiane and hey presto, they offered to make me new varifocal glasses in the shop in half an hour and fit them into my existing frames. I am sooooo happy! I can now see without peering through massive scratches.
In Vientiane I guess we are sampling the many restaurants having visited the many temples and the largely closed museums.
Plus we have found a peaceful oasis in the French institute where we eat lunch and wile away our time in the heat of the day.
There we can buy a 5$ lunch including drinks and play on our phones, write blogs and sit under their big fans in the mat covered cafe looking out on colonial buildings, a quiet library and well kept green grass. If living here, you could sign up for French classes and all manner of activities. This busy peaceful venue attracts Lao people who work in NGO’s and French expats plus their children doing homework on their laptops. (So many excessively skinny French woman!)
An unexpected by product of staying so long in one place, is that we have become buddies with our hotel owner and pally with the staff and other guests. Brad is keen on yoga and Jim was spied trying out a tricky yoga pose in the hotel lobby.
Yesterday we took Brad and Isabella out to lunch. (She is a retired Air hostess that does not like flying). They opted for a massively cheap street cafe, run by Vietnamese Lao people.
The street food turned up on large plates with little satay dishes each and masses of lettuce leaves and fresh herbs and rice paper. You then wrapped the food up into little rice paper parcels and ate them. (The food was spring rolls chopped into bite sized chunks). It was really tasty and cheap.
It all happens in the lobby!
We are hoping for a discount on our room rate for the last week as we have been here so long. She is visiting from Malaya with her Canadian partner and has lived in Singapore, China and owns properties, including two small hotels in Lao. She is an ex-model, an ex-air hostess and now a small scale property developer who really enjoys life. Hers is a story of riches to rags and back to relative riches. Her life experiences included labouring in factories at the age of 10 to pay for her schooling.
Brad and Isobella have enhanced our stay in Vientiane and we have enjoyed many meals together, learnt Lao dance steps and yoga poses in the lobby and have been introduced to their favorite haunts.
Some of them cheap and local.
Others less cheap and not so local!
I do now feel very qualified to offer recommendations on where to eat (or not to) in Vientiane.
My absolute favourites are:
Noys Fruit Heaven - street cafe with local dishes and fresh fruit drinks galore - cheap
The State of Pasta - fresh pasta, cool and minimal. Not a pizza in sight.
Doi Ka Noi - this out of town place, was a real gem and one for the foodies. Lao food, fresh produce, daily changing menus, served European style - ie in the right order and looking beautiful on the plate. Owners’ husband a photographer and his stunning work is displayed on the walls.
Pizza da Roby - real Pizzas in an oven, thin dough and very authentic. Nearer the centre of town.
Cafe Vanille for lunch - amazing salad menu but also burgers, pizza and other specials. Actually French. Not in the centre but catering to nearby embassies.
Last night, our trip out of town in a tuctuc, with our hosts and another guest to find a party to mark the opening of a new burger restaurant, ended in failure. However we found a Mexican restaurant with good music and large hats.
Now we have our car back we could drift off to Cambodia. However, the paperwork for our car is really tricky. We are hoping Melody and Matthieu (les Cheris) will get our documents for us.
If they succeed it saves us from having a horrendous trip, without our car, from Vientiane to the capital Phom Phen to collect it ourselves. It has taken them about a week to get their own paperwork and they had to leave the car on the border. Once this is resolved we can leave Laos and try our luck with our limping car. Before we go we should stock up on fruit and veg now we have a working fridge again in the car.